Managing up: Why the best teams lead their leaders
Pam Hamilton discusses why managing up shouldn't be frowned upon - it should be encouraged.
Most leadership articles give advice on how to manage a team or your direct reports. Hardly any give advice for 'managing up' – how to influence our bosses or leaders.
A recent study analysed the careers of tens of thousands of managers and found that managing upward and managing horizontally (managing both your peers and leaders) is 50% more important in terms of impact on your work than how you manage your subordinates.
So why is managing up used with derision? 'He’s good at managing up' implies he expends more effort looking good in front of the bosses than making sure his team is ok. The implication is that people who are good at managing up are sycophants - but managing up is not sucking up.
Being good at managing up is crucial to the success of any team. If we are clear on our leader’s priorities, and can get them to support our work, it helps us achieve our goals and makes our projects easier, earlier – all of which is better for business.
Managing up is not sucking up
Getting support from our leaders is essential to making progress as a team, but it can be very challenging. Wouldn’t it be great if we could simply ask our leaders to tell us their priorities, and ask them to support our work, and be done with it? With some of the best leaders, this happens.
Being good at managing up is crucial to the success of any team. It helps you to achieve your goals; is better for business; makes your project easier, earlier.
However, many bosses are hard to pin down because they don’t want to commit to one direction, don’t know the answer so avoid answering it, want to be allowed to change their minds, or it’s not up to them but they don’t want to admit it. These leaders don’t want to be held accountable to your team or indeed reveal their priorities in case they are found to be wrong later on.
Conversely, you may have a micromanaging leader who wants to be a part of all your decisions, thinks they know exactly the route your team should take, or is so specific you may as well hand over all the decisions to them.
Some businesses are brutal places to work, and it can be a legitimate survival strategy for your leader to go with the flow rather than stand for something that they may be judged further on down the line. If, for example, your leader knows that there is a big restructure on the horizon, they may not be able to tell you, but want to avoid giving you the wrong information until the big announcement comes.
Fix a direction of travel together
Managing your leaders is tough, but that doesn’t stop us from fixing a direction of travel together with them, even if it has to change. A direction of travel or 'North Star' should feel possible for all teams and leaders to agree. It is not so specific that a leader feels pinned down, but is a guiding light for the team to work with, and helps the team to stay on track and be supported throughout the life of the project.
Stefan Homeister is a leadership expert who has worked with leaders like Steve Jobs, Unilever's Paul Polman and P&G’s David Taylor, and when we talked he told me that you may not have a choice of who is your leader, but you can and must choose to influence them, advising teams to "start from your leader’s needs, not your frustration with them”, no matter whether you work in a small or large organisation, no matter whether you are intern or CEO.
Stefan says leaders are there to help teams by clarifying success, enabling progress and removing roadblocks. His advice for getting leaders to do this well is to understand why your leaders do what they do, and what they expect from the team, and only then asking for that support.
It is only through this understanding that a team can change or challenge, and therefore help improve, what their leader does. Modern leaders are not only open to this, they even expect and demand it.
What’s in it for them?
Your leader has to be motivated to help and support your team, which means we should consider what’s in it for them. We need to understand our leaders better and look for their motivations.
When you work in sales, you get to know your clients as well as possible - many sales people I know write down everything they find out about their clients, including the names of their children, their hobbies and their favourite football teams.
While this may seem creepy, it is a way to make sure you talk to people about what’s important to them, deepening the relationship and the trust between you. Consider how to listen more to what your leader needs and wants so you can give them more of what’s important to them.
Looking back on successful projects I’ve been a part of, every project gave a unique motivation to the leader that supported it. If you take the time to listen and understand the leaders who will influence your project you will understand how to motivate them to support you more. Something as simple as using the language they use can mean they listen harder when you want their support.
Being good at managing up is crucial to the success of any team. It helps you to achieve your goals; is better for business; makes your project easier, earlier. So let’s not complain about our leaders not supporting us, let’s instead take responsibility for making sure they do.
About the author
Pam Hamilton is the author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork. In Chapter nine there are three tools that will help you get more support from your leaders, including how to set a direction of travel and find your leader’s motivation.
Join Pam, Stefan Homeister, host of the Leitwolf leadership podcast, and Remy Blumenfeld, Forbes contributor, in conversation about managing up, getting your leaders to support your work and what leaders really want from teams in a free online event on 3rd June 4pm BST, Register to join here.
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